The Connection Between Physical Activity and Mental Wellbeing: Unlocking the Benefits for Depression
1. Biochemical Boost:
- What Happens: Physical activity triggers the release of endorphins—natural mood lifters. It also stimulates the release of neurotransmitters, like serotonin, that can reduce depression and anxiety. For years now, I've been told and have read from multiple sources that physical activity limits and reduces depression and stress through biological changes in hormone and metabolic functions. I do feel better when I work out. Lately, however, it's been difficult because I can't use my legs for working out.
- Benefit for Depression: These biochemical changes improve mood, reduce feelings of stress, and create a sense of well-being.
A really decent resource for learning about how to beat depression without working out and achieving biochemical boosts is Andrew Huberman (n.d.) I've watched several of his videos on how to "hack" neurological functions and alter behaviors to achieve better outcomes in life.
2. Reduced Inflammation:
- What Happens: Regular exercise has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects on the body.
One of the resources I've been following, Wim Hof (n.d.) has been practicing what he calls the "Wim Hoff Method." By using "Cold Therapy" along with breathing and commitment, Wim claims that it helps the body fight off stress and other biological issues. I've been practicing his methods and incorporating them into my lifestyle recently. And the latest element of Wim Hof's methods I've started is to use cold showers. I do feel different after I finish cold showers, both mentally and physically.
- Benefit for Depression: Some research suggests that chronic inflammation may be linked to depression. By reducing inflammation, exercise can potentially counteract some depressive symptoms.
3. Sleep Quality Enhancement:
- What Happens: Physical activity can lead to better sleep by promoting more regular sleep patterns and increasing the duration of deep sleep.
One of the items I use for tracking sleep and analyzing the patterns is the Oura Ring (Oura Ring. Smart Ring for Fitness, Stress, Sleep & Health, n.d.) It allows me to see how much REM sleep, deep, and light sleep that I have as well as what my blood oxygen levels were during sleep.
- Benefit for Depression: Improved sleep can help alleviate some symptoms of depression, as poor sleep is often both a symptom and a contributor to the condition.
4. Cognitive Function Improvement:
- What Happens: Physical activity can boost cognitive function by enhancing the brain's ability to process information and react to stimuli.
One of the things that I had to fight beginning about four years ago, was chemo fog. It not only caused quite a bit of depression for me as I wasn't able to think like I used to be able to, but it also kept me from being able to study or learn anything new for the most part. I had problems, concentrating for more than 15 or 20 minutes without getting agitated. Physical activity definitely helps to relieve some of the chemo fog, but ultimately I had to seek counseling and help from some psychiatrists.
- Benefit for Depression: Improved cognitive function can aid in better problem-solving and decision-making, potentially mitigating feelings of helplessness common in depression.
5. Self-Esteem and Mastery:
- What Happens: Achieving fitness goals, no matter how small, can boost one's confidence and sense of accomplishment.
What's your mind is clear and you can analyze things as they happen. It is less difficult to maintain a positive mindset and not get derailed by anyone coming at you with negativity or chaos.
- Benefit for Depression: This boost in self-esteem can counteract feelings of worthlessness that are commonly associated with depression.
6. Social Interaction:
- What Happens: Group exercises or team sports offer opportunities for social interaction and building relationships.
A huge benefit is gained by being satisfied with your own levels of physical activity, and the progress you are making. I believe this comes from the satisfaction of achievement.
- Benefit for Depression: Social connections can act as a support system, alleviating feelings of isolation common in depression.
7. Distraction and Mindfulness:
- What Happens: Engaging in physical activity offers a break from negative thought patterns and encourages a focus on the present moment.
Parallel to being able to resist being stressed by negativity or chaos is the ability to maintain focus during distraction, and an extra ability to slip into mindfulness even faster.
- Benefit for Depression: This distraction can offer temporary relief from depressive symptoms and foster a sense of mindfulness.
Starting Your Physical Activity Journey:
1. Start Small: If you're new to exercise, begin with short, manageable sessions, and gradually increase over time. Everything builds upon itself, and as you gain extra skills, you will find that the early skills that you gain become trivial and automatic later in life.
2. Choose Activities You Enjoy: Whether it's walking, dancing, yoga, or any other activity—enjoyment is key to consistency. I've started using what I consider a tricep bar with about 30 lbs total weight, and as I'm confined to bed for the most part, except for 3 or 4 hours aggregate per day, I like to exercise anytime I get the urge to.
3. Stay Safe: Consult with a healthcare provider before beginning any exercise regime, especially if you have underlying health conditions. Attempting to exceed your limits by further than you're ready to will end up in pain or injury. Take it slow. Start with low weights and higher repetitions.
4. Include Social Activities: Consider group classes or joining a club to incorporate social interaction into your exercise routine. Be sure not to exclude spending time with friends and family.
While exercise can play a pivotal role in managing depression, it should complement, not replace, traditional treatments like medication or therapy. Always work with a healthcare professional to develop a comprehensive approach to your mental well-being.
Huberman Lab. (n.d.). Huberman Lab. Retrieved August 19, 2023 from https://hubermanlab.com/
Hoff, W. (n.d.). Welcome to the Official Wim Hof Method Website. Wim Hof Method. Retrieved August 19, 2023 from https://www.wimhofmethod.com/
Oura Ring. Smart Ring for Fitness, Stress, Sleep & Health. (n.d.). Oura Ring. Retrieved August 19, 2023 from https://ouraring.com/